We Underestimate The Human Brain

I couldn’t resist this post. Five-year-olds memorized facts in seven subject areas along with 1) the names of all the U.S. presidents 2) 24 verses of a chapter from the book of Ephesians and 3) enjoyed hands-on explorations in science, art, and music. Middle and high schoolers also wrote papers, redrew the map of the world from memory, analyzed text, and debated. These activities have kept the kids in our local homeschool community busy since the fall. I had to give you a glimpse of what some of this work looked like. My first grader loved every minute with our weekly small group. I have played the audios of songs and recitations almost every day the last eight months to drive them in nice and deep, and never has he tired of them.

Classical Conversations is a Christian version of the approach to education that draws its roots from the ancient Classical world. The Classical model takes its cue from the developing mind. We take advantage of the tremendous capacity for information the early years offer. We then encourage kids to draw relationships among the facts they’ve retained. Older teens integrate principles and articulate their reasoning. The students work hard. They even get a bit overwhelmed in transitioning between the levels as public schoolers moving on to high school do. But our students rise to the challenge and don’t see the memorization as such. It is doable, palatably apportioned week to week. As you can see, it’s fun.

The clips are from the cumulative memory work of 24 weeks that the students presented before family and friends two weeks ago. Turn up the volume for the indefinite pronouns rap:

The kids closed the event with the 204-point timeline of human history; here are the first 40 seconds. The hand motions include American Sign Language for tactile learners. Yes, the kids recited every word of the timeline you see listed. I think the best part is their enthusiasm in the learning.





46 thoughts on “We Underestimate The Human Brain

  1. Children in China have to learn a minimum of two thousand Chinese characters in their early school years. As you know each character consists of sub-characters which tell a story and when combined together express an idea as I understand it. I guess its that encouragement to develop the memory that makes North Asian students so formidable in a Western educational setup in which they excel. In general we don’t seem to challenge students in the West to develop their potential to its limit. I know I was shot down in the past for saying this but it’s what I’ve observed.

    • ” As you know each character consists of sub-characters which ”

      LOL Ian, why would I know this?? Because I’m Asian? And remember, I said I’m KoReAn-American? Though some ancient form of Korean hails from Chinese, Korean is an altogether (phonetically) simpler language and entirely different. I didn’t know that about Chinese. LOL.

      BUT yes, your point is well taken. It is one I find myself revisiting and circling from different angles as I negotiate with myself on how much to push my son. But as you could see, the kids just got a kick out of this – after 24 wks of nonstop rote drills in and outside the home. AND it was bedtime for the littlest ones. I learned so much this past cycle…after spending over $100,000 on an Ivy League education – not even counting grad school – I have said I’ve felt I learned more geography and history the last several months than in all my formal schooling combined.

      • Our time in school should only teach us to think and explore ideas. The learning part is a lifetime experience. Yes I noted there were some Chinese characters in both Korean and Japanese though as you say the languages general writing and construction are different. I was told that the Korean language was created by one of your ancient kings or what ever title they had in those days. Is that true? Not sure how to spell it after all these years but han samne da with apologies for the greeting misspelling.

      • The three Asian languages you mention are each unique. And yes, I learned as a girl that a king came up with the Korean alphabet.

        “han samne da” LOL Not sure what you’re saying.

    • very Interesting keep it up. when people cant and don’t understand something the easiest way is to reject it.

      • “very Interesting keep it up.” Whom are you talking to, CrazyGuy? Me or Ian?

        Though I think you were addressing him in the rest of your comment, that people resist what is unfamiliar, as many in the West don’t want to be told we’re not challenging our kids as we can.

      • I thought I had pressed reply to the other guy. I just think that in the West we always have to chose our words right when we tell people that other places do something BETTER, not good but better: we have all been watching to much media and brainwashed. Back in Sweden we used to disturb the class and teacher on a daily basis. the teacher said when you grow up you will regret it. its true now I understand. If me and my friends were acting like that why did we stay in class. why not just start working.

    • The model we have adopted is the most rigorous I have come across among the homeschool options. Not to say at all that homeschoolers who go about it another way are not ambitious or don’t excel. Many, many do. But I’m speaking of a curriculum and paradigm that have clearly spelled themselves out (not of the goals of families).

      I noticed something very interesting. After quickly getting used to finding ourselves in the slim minority of Asian-Americans in predominantly white homeschool gatherings (even in this learning community I mentioned), I noticed last year more Asians-Ams than I’d seen in the larger parent training group, an amalgamate of the learning communities in our county. I realized the Classical model attracted As-Am families for its rigor and high standards.

  2. I feel that western countries have dumbed down the learning process to the detriment of so many young brains. About 30 years ago some educationists decided that learning by rote damaged kids free spirit. What a lot of bunkum! In general we have ended up with young people who can not and will not accept the discipline of learning. The western world could learn a lot from Asian culture and education

    • Once having taught in the classrooms, I am familiar with the pendulum swings in American education, Maureen. The interesting thing here is – if you tapped open the videos – homeschool groups are largely white in the States. My family is a very small minority in our own learning community. My reply to Ian who made a comment similar to yours might interest you. =) Thanks for the faithful read, my friend!

  3. Thank you for sharing this post! One of the special memory and wonders of my childhood came from attending non-public parochial school. We were expected to memorize and learn Latin for mass, the catechism, and mandatory choir with all the memory work entailed there. To this day, and I am in my mid sixties, I have not only retained what I learned (and it was not a burden but a shared exciting excursion) but it stimulated critical thinking and instilled a love of words and science.
    I raised my boys with plenty of enrichment in that same style, exposing them to so much more than what the public schools they attended afforded. The result is generational – and I am sure they will also pass this on.
    Kids love learning, and to miss that window is a tragedy!
    Thanks again, really enjoy your work.

    • I love hearing this part of your own story and am completely in sync with your reflections on learning, Peggy. Not once has my son felt all the “work” to bea burden these months – but sheer joy and fun. It is really something altogether, this thing we call education, when our kids are crooning Newton’s First Law of Motion in the bathtub and dancing to possessive pronouns around their breakfast bowl. All the children, 4 yrs and up, learn Latin in the Classical model (of course…it’s Classical!) My boy learned verb conjugations this cycle. You said it best: kids. love. learning. It is so simple. And to miss that window or keep it shut in the name of going through a textbook or kowtowing to legislative dictates on testing indeed is a shame.


  4. Wow, what a wonderful and ambitious learning project! It is great that there was a big performance to work towards, too. Did the students also learn about the events they were memorising, or will that come up in greater detail in later classes?

    I think there is something to be said for the discipline of memorising snippets…i envy those who can recite poetry at will, for they will always have that.

    Thanks for sharing the videos, too!

    • Thanks for the interested question, Jaime. We have stacks of beautifully illustrated glossy timeline cards, one for each event, with information and descriptions on the back. It is up to each parent – bc we are our child’s teacher, not any other small group leader – to explain as much of it as we’d like or is appropriate. A lot of history is just plain blood and gore. We will be revisiting this timeline in a few years so when my son is older, he will learn about it in greater depth. By then, he will have recognized the terms and names and realize how the different time periods and events influenced one another.

      He’s been drinking quality literature since he was a peon. =) He fell in love with Narnia when he was four and enjoyed a Narnian bday party at 5, which he still tells strangers about LOL. Even guests dressed up…he chose to be Prince Edmund. Mom was the White Witch; Daddy, Mr. Faun. =) The little man’s been spouting, the last two years, strings of sentences beautifully crafted from the mind of CS Lewis.


  5. Wow. What a fun and interactive way to learn. I wish more schools would make an effort to make learning engaging in this way- turning it into play really, which is how it should be. Thanks for sharing, Diana.

  6. Precious, just precious. To see their enthusiasm and knowledge. Give yourself a well deserved pat on the back, friend. Wonderful!

    BTW: Responding to some of the other commenters, my kids have attended public school in two states, and I find myself marveling at both the expectation and at their accomplishment. I know a lot of attention is paid in the media to how bad the American education system has become in comparison to other countries, but, from my experience, it is a lot harder than when I was in school.

    • Awesome. I am so glad for your satisfied experience with the American public schools, EC. I’m happy to keep your good word on them posted here. Nothing’s all bad. And we have some incredibly dedicated teachers in the trenches out there. I know. They were some of my dearest friends when I taught.

  7. Very interesting! What happens to kids as they get older that takes away from our natural abilities? Just look at running – kids run everywhere and do it with great form. As we get older we are taught new techniques that can screw people up and cause injuries. Hmm.

    • aHA! LUv it, Scott. I dunno why I can’t find this bk you bring to mind. I think it’s 10 Ways to Kill the Imagination of Your Child. It’s brilliant, incisive writing and one chapter is entitled (something along the lines of) Keep Them Indoors. I wanted to blog off an excerpt one of these days. The author talks about the good ol’ days when we used to go exploring, just go ambling…along desert biways, over fences, dirt roads…create games from nothing, etc. So you help me put some of his chapters together, how we box our kids in in more ways than one nowadays as they grow older.

      • Oh yes, I will help you! When I was a kid I would leave home in the morning, play all day (unsupervised) in various places (parks, friends’ houses, the forest) and wouldn’t come home until I was hungry or it got dark. Would anyone allow their kids to do that now a days? They’re talking about giving phones to kindergartners so parents can keep track of them for crying out loud. My 5 year old came up with an idea for a short Christmas movie. I haven’t gotten very far with it, but I did have a brainstorming session with him trying to get all his ideas. It will be interesting – one character is called “Baby Ghost”.

  8. That’s a really interesting glimpse into “home schooling” (it’s quite obviously not all at home). Are there gov’t established targets that have to be achieved? I’m just wondering because I am seriously doubtful that many students at that early an age would be exposed to the entries in the Timeline, let alone their meaning and significance. Which begs the question: Are there topics covered in public school that are not covered in home schooling? How much cirriculum flexibility is there? It strikes me that a lot of “teacher” time per student is invested in the learning experience. No doubt that helps contribute to the obvious success of the learning. And for those that can do it, it would be a much preferred paradigm. I’d be interested if you could update us periodically on your son’s progress Diana. Thanks for the great post – I’ve never before had an opportunity to see homeschooling in action.

    • Hi Paul. I refer you to my reply to Jaime on the depth and understanding the little ones can gain on the historical events and names they memorize. Exactly what I would’ve shared with you. Homeschooling is as varied as the 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins. We have independents, who do it all at home (which also means the car and field trips, etc), as well as those who lean on the support, accountability, and funding of public charter schools. Both types of schoolers make up our community. The hs movement also has unschoolers, who let children lead and choose the topics (even approach) in the learning, and the Classical folks on the opposite end who “feed” their kids a rigorous curriculum. But even in the Classical model there is flexibility, and each family chooses its own lang arts and math. Families who lean on charter schools in particular will bow more readily to state guidelines. Many others thumb our nose at such mandates, well aware that it wasn’t bona fide educators who even came up with those guidelines but legislators and administrators who were driven by $$$$ in the edu-political arena. There is nothing written in blood that says my son has to know the history of CA in the fourth grade. Many homeschoolers will learn it earlier – and if they do so later in their school career, they will have learned about Greek and Rome cultures way before any public high schooler. The answer to your ques on curriculum satisfaction also depends greatly on the state you’re in. Some states choke homeschoolers with restrictions. CA affords us great flexibility. Good ques. I appreciate the interest, buddy.

      • Does the gov’t assist in funding? I know that here, each year households with school age children get a letter from the gov’t asking if they intend to enrol their children in French, English or home schooling. Funds are allocated for home schooling if it is chosen. Otherwise the money goes to the appropriate school board. In theory these funds come originally from sales taxes, of which a certain percentage is directed to education funding. Does it work the same way in California?

  9. Simply awestruck. Fantastic curriculum. I taught for only five years (but in East L.A.–equivalent of fifteen years elsewhere : ), and treasured our clothesline timeline that stretched across our room, with mnemonics to help lock in history’s highlights–or “lowlights”, like the blue- and grey-clad paper doll-men locked in battle,complete with a brown doll-man dangling captive beneath them.

    It has always made so much sense to me to teach history in chronological order, and then, once the children have a grounding in the big picture, reteach in more depth. As I believe another commenter said, wish I could go back to school and take this curriculum, and that my children could, as well.

    So much can build out from this foundation: Vocabularly, language (explorers must communicate with many cultures), anthropology/sociology, math (you’re packing for the New World: How much cargo will FIT in that hold?), science (ecology/navigation/astronomy/estimation of speed, height, distance/engineering/botany/classification schema/etc., etc.)

    Eye-opening post. Thank you.

    • What a wonderful teacher you were. LOL YEs, five years out this way would amount to 15 elsewhere. I actually taught for about the same amount of time in Philly and a neighboring district where I taught GATE. I can’t tell you how much I learned last fall! Ashamed to admit I know my world geography now, including Baltic Europe, Central America, and SE Asia. Thank you for the thoughtful, enthusiastic feedback. And yes, we can go as deeply and broadly as we’d like with the curriculcum.

      Lovely to connect,

  10. Great post and I’m excited for the little scholars. Enthusiasm for learning should never be diminished. There’s a lot of pressure on the minds and hearts of students today to perform and demonstrate knowledge. Enrichment and support and endless shelves of diverse books; that’s my perfect educational system.

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